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ABC/Radio Australia Feature November 26, 1999

The conservative President of French Polynesia has vowed to appeal against a conviction on corruption charges.

A Paris court this week found that Gaston Flosse had used close to half-a-million dollars from an illegal casino to finance his political party.

It's the President's second such conviction and, if it’s upheld, then he will be barred from holding public office for a year.

The result of a third corruption case against Gaston Flosse is expected in early January.

Pro-independence leaders say the guilty verdict is a sign that the President's days are numbered, but cabinet ministers have pledged continuing support.

Tricia Fitzgerald reports.

For almost two decades, Gaston Flosse has been a lynchpin of pro-French and anti-independence politics in French Polynesia.

He holds the Territory's presidential position, is mayor of the town of Pirae on the outskirts of the capital and is a Senator in French President Jacques Chirac's conservative RPR party.

The French court found he'd used bribes from an illegal casino in Pirae, to fund his pro-Gaullist party, 10 years ago.

He says he's shocked by the severity of the sentence the court has handed down and will challenge the decision.

It's already taken almost a decade for France to bring the case to trial and the sentence barring him from holding the presidency of the territory can't take effect until the appeals process is completed.

Pro-independence opposition groups, who have been meeting on the issue, say even if his appeal is successful, the conviction will still damage Mr. Flosse's chances in key Territorial elections in 2001.

Nelson Ortas, a senior advisor for the strongest independence party, Tavini Huiraatira, says the conviction is a boost to their campaign for independence.

ORTAS: For the opposition, Gaston Flosse is the emblem of the French republic. He is the status quo. He is a symbol of France, and one of the greatest supporters of France in this country. However, with his conviction, following the trial, and also the future trials that are coming up, this negative element against Mr. Flosse will obviously be used against him during the future elections.

FITZGERALD: Over a dozen government ministers have however issued a statement, saying they and the majority of Polynesians remain solidly behind the president.

They are reportedly organizing a show of support for Mr. Flosse when he returns to French Polynesia at the weekend.

Nic McClellan, a political analyst from the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre in Fiji, says despite the damage to Mr. Flosse's reputation from the conviction, he retains a solid power base.

MCCLELLAN: Flosse is a very seasoned political performer. In his own language, in Tahitian, he's a very skilled orator, and even his opponents in the independence movement acknowledge his public capacities as a political leader. The very nature of the French administration system has meant that Flosse's conservative party has enormous resources. In past elections, they've used public resources for electoral purposes. To that extent, because of the enormous size of the country, holding office is a significant feature in any election campaign.

FITZGERALD: Both supporters and opponents of Mr. Flosse say the timing of the appeal process will be crucial in determining the President's political future.

Nic McClellan says with pro-independence parties strengthening their vote in the last poll, in 1996, Mr. Flosse's participation in the next election will be important for the anti-independence side.

MCCLELLAN: The timing is important, whether the courts will move quickly on this, or whether the affair will drag. Remembering that the offence that he's been charged with -- the so-called Hombo Affair -- occurred nearly 10 years ago, and the French courts have been dragging on this question for many years because of Flosse's powerful political position. Whether they'll act quickly now is a matter that people in French Polynesia are waiting to see with baited breath.

FITZGERALD: In French Polynesia, opposition parties says the severity of the sentence handed down on Mr. Flosse is a sign the French government now wants to distance itself from the territorial leader.

Nelson Ortas, from the pro-independence party Tavini Huiraatira, says France is now hoping to gain support for some limited transfer of powers to the Territory next year, as an alternative to full independence.

With that in mind, Mr. Ortas says France is keen to be seen to be moving to clean up corruption in the territory.

ORTAS: For many years now, of course, and this is no secret to anyone -- with Mr. Gaston Flosse's close ties Mr. Jacques Chirac, it has created an environment of great support for Mr. Gaston Flosse -- being that he's from the right party. However, with the Socialists coming into power, these parameters have changed and so now I think the Socialists would like clean up local politics and may use Mr. Gaston Flosse as an example.

(First broadcast November 26, 1999)

For additional reports from Radio Australia, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia.

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